November 17, 2018

Educator Emil (Uzi) Jacoby, 94

Emil Jacoby and Leonard Cohen on Grandparents’ Day at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School on March 31, 2015. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Jacoby

Beloved local Jewish educator Emil (Uzi) Jacoby died on Feb. 15 in Los Angeles. He was 94.

Jacoby was born on Nov. 30, 1923, in Cop, Czechoslovakia. After his bar mitzvah, he went to study in yeshiva, first in Cop and then in Ungvar, which at the time was part of Hungary.

At 16, Jacoby left yeshiva and went to the Gymnasia in Ungvar. He graduated in 1943 and moved to Budapest, Hungary. There, he was trained to become a leader of the then-illegal Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement. It was then he adopted a Hebrew nom de guerre — Menachem Uziel. From that day forward, he was known as Uzi.

During World War II, Uzi helped lead the efforts in Bucharest, Romania, and Budapest to rescue European Jews and bring them to Israel. After the war, Uzi was elected as Bnei Akiva’s director of operations in Hungary and served as the camp director at Lake Balaton’s summer camp. It was there that he met the greatest love of his life, Erika, a Holocaust survivor.

On Nov. 29, 1947, Uzi received his doctorate and also became engaged to Erika, almost a year after they met. It was also the day that the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab.

Shortly afterward, Uzi (now called Dr. Emil Jacoby) moved to Paris to work with Yosef Burg in the European office of the Mizrahi political movement. He visited Israel and in August 1949 traveled to New York City, where he reunited with Erika.

Settling in New York, Uzi taught at the Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Brooklyn while simultaneously completing two degrees at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as a master’s degree in mathematics at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Uzi and Erika moved to Los Angeles in July 1953. From 1953 to 1956, Uzi was the director of education at Valley Jewish Community Center/Adat Ari El. From there, he went on to become the associate director, executive director and then accreditation consultant at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (now called Builders of Jewish Education). He remained in that position until he retired in 2008.

Uzi also spent 10 summers as the education director for Camp Ramah and was an adjunct professor at the University of Judaism.

Uzi is survived by his wife, Erika, three children, 10 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Survivor: Emil Jacoby

On Saturday evening, March 18, 1944, Emil Jacoby’s father walked him to the train station in Cop, Czechoslovakia. Emil, just 20, had spent an emotional weekend with his family — their last weekend together, though they didn’t know it at the time — and was returning to Budapest. Unable to buy a ticket for the express train, which was booked, he hopped a local freight train. But when his ride pulled into the Budapest station 12 hours later, Emil was startled to see German and Hungarian soldiers all around. He remained in the car until he could leave without being noticed. “I was trying to escape with my life,” he recalled. Later that day he learned that German soldiers, who had marched into Hungary that morning, had met all the arriving passenger trains, rounding up the Jews and deporting them to labor camps. 

Menachem (Mendel in Yiddish and Emil in Hungarian) Jakubovics was born on Nov. 30, 1923, in Cop, a small town on the Hungarian border, to Benjamin and Rivkah Jakubovics. He was the second child and oldest son in a family of three boys and three girls. 

Benjamin owned a grocery store and the observant family lived comfortably. Benjamin served as secretary of the entire Jewish community, which included about 100 families and two synagogues. But in November 1938, Hungary occupied southern Slovakia, including Cop, and non-Hungarian Jews soon faced deportation. 

Hungarian police arrived at the Jakubovics’ home one evening, taking the parents and six children in two taxis to the Slovak border. Emil and his brother Zvi, who were in one taxi, were dropped off in unfamiliar surroundings. They wandered for several hours in the darkness until a Slovak policeman directed them to the Jewish quarter in Michalovce, where their aunt and uncle lived. They stayed with the couple, attending the local Jewish school.

The rest of their family found their way to Velykyi Bereznyi, about 30 kilometers away, where they lived with Emil’s father’s parents.  Half a year later, the family was reunited in Cop.

Soon after, Emil was sent to an extremely Orthodox yeshiva in Uzhhorod, Hungary (then Ungvár).

During this time, Emil became involved with Bnei Akiva, an illegal, religious Zionist organization. Unable to reconcile his new political activism with yeshiva life, in early 1939 Emil transferred to the Hebrew gymnasium, a modern high school, where he was exposed to Latin, English and other secular subjects, in addition to Jewish studies. “It was perhaps the most important decision in my life at that time,” Emil said.

In Bnei Akiva, Emil took the name Uziel, after Rav Ben-Zion Uziel, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine. He was called “Uzi,” a nickname still used by family and close friends.

In 1943, after graduation, Emil moved to Budapest to continue his work with Bnei Akiva, living in a house with other chaverim (comrades) and sharing expenses. He found a job as an electrician’s apprentice and also registered at the University of Budapest, where, forbidden to enroll in engineering classes, he studied Slovak languages.  

On behalf of Bnei Akiva, Emil traveled on weekends to Hungarian villages, meeting with local activists, warning people about the advancing German armies and providing many Jews with false identification papers. “I didn’t feel comfortable in the university at that time. I wanted to do meaningful things,” Emil said.

When Germany invaded Hungary, Emil, returning to Budapest that morning by freight train, was able to contact Bnei Akiva leaders and locate a safe place to stay. 

In May, he was assigned to cross the border into Romania, stopping first in Debrecen. The Americans, however, had bombed the station and the train unexpectedly halted outside the city. Emil and other chaverim exited and separately made their way to a secret meeting place, an abandoned apartment house. There, in the dark, they were deciding to return to Budapest when they suddenly heard a loud banging on the door. A neighbor had heard their voices and called the police, who broke in and apprehended several of them. Emil escaped through the attic to another apartment and eventually returned to Budapest.

During this time Emil worried about his family, as he heard that the ghetto in Cop had been liquidated and the Jews taken to Uzhhorod.

About two weeks later, as instructed, Emil traveled by train to a village near the Romanian border. Early the next morning a smuggler led him and other chaverim toward the border, stopping at a certain point and motioning for them to proceed. From a distance, Emil heard barking dogs, which distracted the guards, and the group crossed safely. They continued walking in the dark and soon arrived at a Slovak village, where they were fed and hidden in an attic. Early the next morning, they were taken to the train station and told to disembark at Arad, in western Romania. 

In Arad, Emil met with other Bnei Akiva chaverim in a synagogue. They discussed the best ways to assist the hundreds of Jews escaping from Hungary, Poland and other countries in reaching the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, and traveling to Palestine. 

Emil made his way to Bucharest, where he made contact with the local Zionist organization and continued his rescue work. On August 23, 1944, Soviet troops liberated Bucharest, making life less dangerous, though Emil was wary of the Russians.

In April 1945 Emil traveled to Timisoara, Transylvania, for Bnei Akiva’s first international conference. There, he was officially elected to one of the movement’s executive leadership positions.

Emil was then called back to Budapest, where he was reunited with his three surviving siblings: Malka, Hanna and Zvi. He also enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Budapest. 

He continued his work with Bnei Akiva, establishing schools and camps for orphaned children and teenagers. While serving as the director of a summer camp near Lake Balatan, Hungary, he met a junior counselor named Erika Engel. On Nov. 29, 1947, they became engaged, the same day Emil received his doctorate.

Erika then left for Cuba with her surviving mother and brother, and Emil departed for Paris. There he worked at Merkaz L’Europa, again helping refugees travel to Palestine, which became the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. 

In August 1949, Emil traveled to New York City, where he was invited to enroll at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He received a bachelor’s degree in divinity and a master’s in Jewish education, as well as a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia University’s Teachers College. 

He and Erika reunited in October 1949 and married on Sept. 24, 1950. They have three sons: Jonathan, born in 1953, Benjamin in 1956 and Michael in 1957.

In July 1953, Emil and Erika moved to Los Angeles, where Emil took a job at Valley Jewish Community Center, which later became Adat Ari El. He was director of education there from 1953 to 1976. 

In 1976, Emil was appointed associate director and later executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles. In 1993, he shifted his focus to school accreditation, retiring in 2008. 

Emil, who recently turned 90, enjoys his family, which now includes 10 grandchildren. 

Emil has dedicated his life to educating Jews. “I want to make sure the value of Judaism stays there for the Jewish people,” he said. 

On Emil Jacoby’s 90th birthday, a tribute to a life well lived

In late March 1945, a young Czech Jew hiding in Budapest organized a Passover service for escapees from the Nazis and for those working in the rescue efforts. Most of the people who gathered that day had worked and lived together in hiding. When a stranger appeared, the young Czech organizer decided to honor him by asking that he recite the haftarah, a chapter that told the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

As this young Czech listened to the man chant, he was taken by the sense that the ancient words were speaking directly to him. And it was in that moment that he decided to dedicate his life to making dry bones live again, to ensuring the continuation and renewal of the Jewish people. He promised himself that, if he survived, his job would be to help transmit the tradition, to help his community remain Jewish and to attempt to inspire others also to serve klal Yisra’el.

Thus began the career of Emil Jacoby, a career that lasted well over half a century and that has touched the lives of thousands of children and families in Los Angeles.

Many articles could be written about Emil Jacoby. Between the two of us, one could describe what it is like to be his son and to learn so many life lessons from him. One could write about Emil Jacoby, the mentor, supervisor, colleague and friend. We choose to focus on him as a model and inspiration. 

We will call him by a name that neither of us often use, but by which many of his closest friends and relatives have known him: Uzi. Short for Uziel (God is my strength), it is the name he acquired as a Zionist activist during and immediately after World War II.

Love what you live. Love what you do.

Throughout his career, Uzi was motivated by the experiences of his youth, which instilled in him a love of Judaism and a respect for community. Uzi’s mother lived by the principle of hiddur mitzvah, delighting in each mitzvah; she brought beauty and the joy of living into the family’s home and taught her family to appreciate the value of Jewish life. Indeed, hiddur mitzvah is an apt description of the experience that anyone fortunate enough to grow up in Uzi’s home, to go with him to Camp Ramah or join him at his synagogue, Adat Ari El, would have encountered.

Keep an open mind. Respect differences. Respect the past. Honor the present.

Uzi’s father was the secretary of the entire kehillah (congregation) of his hometown of Cop, in Czechoslovakia, trusted by the entire community — from Chasidim to liberal Jews. This is where Uzi learned the value of the klal, of the totality of the Jewish community, above and beyond any differences among individuals.  

Perhaps more than any other quality, respect for pluralism and diversity characterized Uzi’s tenure as a leader for decades at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education. This respect, in turn, was complemented by an insistence on open-mindedness, a value Uzi internalized in his teen years, when his studies included both classical Jewish texts and the insights of Haskalah (enlightenment). After enrolling first in a traditional yeshiva, Uzi later transferred to the Hebrew Gymnasium, a Jewish school that included secular subjects — Latin and English — alongside Jewish history, Hebrew literature and Tanach. The Gymnasium’s expanded curriculum offered the foundation for the greatest joys of his intellectual life. His teachers there were powerful role models of Jewish commitment, leadership and caring, the model for what Uzi would become for hundreds of his own students in Los Angeles.

Don’t just survive. Rescue. Build.

After the liberation, Uzi used his background and skills to create educational programs needed for the young Jews returning from concentration camps and years of hiding. In the years immediately following the end of the war, he trained counselors and teachers, published books, organized a regional school and conducted summer camps. This experience strengthened his resolve to continue to serve as a Jewish educator.  

In about 1950, Uzi immigrated to New York, where he was a teacher, even as he also studied to advance his own formal education. He was also reunited with his fiancée, Erika, who had come to the United States via Cuba — but that’s another story.

By the time Uzi arrived in Los Angeles, in 1953, he’d had abundant training and experience, and he set out to develop one of the premier Conservative congregational schools in the United States. From 1953 until 1976, under his leadership, the school at Adat Ari El (then known as Valley Jewish Community Center) grew from 200 students to 1,500, and it earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. At the heart of this success was Uzi’s effectiveness in nurturing other educators and developing an esprit de corps among his staff. Well before the notion of “family education” entered the lexicon of Jewish education, Uzi implemented a vast array of family and intergenerational programs.

Even as he built a model school, Uzi took on two other assignments of critical importance to Jewish education. First, he became director of education at Camp Ramah in California, where he helped build a camp program that nurtured an entire generation of rabbinic and lay leadership. At the same time, he was appointed to the faculty of Jewish education at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University). There, through the 1960s and ’70s, he raised up a cadre of educators who continue to serve with distinction in communities throughout North America.

In 1976, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) turned to Uzi to serve as its associate director. In that capacity, he called upon all of his remarkable skills and experiences in providing educational support to a community network of more than 150 schools serving 30,000 students. By 1982, his vast knowledge and unique background, his ability to work with professional colleagues and lay leaders, and his intimate familiarity with the Los Angeles Jewish community made him the appropriate choice for appointment as executive director of the Los Angeles BJE.

During a decade of service as CEO of the second-largest BJE in the nation, Uzi built a harmonious and productive community of educators, spanning all school types and ideologies. He mentored dozens of emerging Jewish educational leaders. He fostered outstanding inter-agency cooperation, and developed an active and supportive board of directors. 

In 1993, after 40 years of educational leadership in Los Angeles, Uzi turned his prodigious energy to an ambitious BJE initiative: the development and implementation of an accreditation process for all school types — including early childhood centers, day schools/yeshivot and congregational (part-time) religious schools.

Characteristically, Uzi worked skillfully in partnership with school-based educators, consultants from outside school systems, accreditation commissions and colleagues to devise approaches to self-study and external review that would help L.A. schools think about desired outcomes and strategies for getting “from here to there.” BJE’s school accreditation program — which Uzi coordinated for 15 years — became a national model. It helped schools reimagine curriculum and instruction to more effectively meet learners’ needs.

In 2008, Uzi and his wife, Erika, joined 136 L.A. teens, as well as staff and other survivors, on the BJE March of the Living. They shared with the high school seniors their experiences of adolescence and young adulthood — telling them of a very different reality. Erika, a survivor of Auschwitz, marked her 80th birthday by returning to that location, recounting there what it was like to be a 16-year-old in the death camp. Uzi shared the experiences of those outside the camps who were active with rescue efforts.

Uzi continued to serve until he finally retired at age 85 from his professional work at BJE. His leadership continues today to inform BJE’s mission, and to impact the lives of children and families of multiple generations. Uzi has surely helped bring renewed vitality — fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision — to Jewish life worldwide in the generations after the Holocaust. 

As he turns 90 this week, on Nov. 30, his family, friends, admirers, students and younger colleagues join together in saying: Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu — how happy and fortunate are we to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration of Dr. Emil “Uzi” Jacoby, a model Jewish educator.

Jonathan Jacoby is senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Dr. Gil Graff is executive director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

Schools Work Hard to Make the Grade


The Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West team labored close to two years on their assignment. They administered surveys, compiled data and poured through reams of material. This homework, however, was completed not by students, but by staff and faculty. And the project was not so much required as extra credit.

The Agoura school’s administration voluntarily underwent the rigorous process in order to become accredited by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles (BJE) and two secular accrediting bodies. The resulting 318-page tome, which reflected input from administrators, faculty, parents and families, detailed every aspect of the school’s operation from governance to finances to faculty credentials and student curricula.

Ten years ago, the BJE made history in the world of Jewish education by developing and conducting the first-ever accreditation process for Jewish schools. Prior to that, schools might have undergone the process with state or national agencies, but did not have a mechanism to demonstrate that they were accomplishing their Jewish educational goals. Today, 30 Jewish day schools and yeshivas and 40 religious schools in Los Angeles are BJE accredited.

The process is spelled out in a manual created by Emil Jacoby, the BJE’s former director and now senior consultant. It takes early childhood centers, yeshivas, day schools and religious schools through a thorough, standardized process to ensure that each school is fulfilling its missions and goals.

Jacoby designed the manual to integrate BJE requirements with those of other accrediting bodies. For day schools and yeshivas, BJE accreditation occurs simultaneously with Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and/or the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS).

Accreditation “insures that schools have a clear sense of their mission and goals and values,” said BJE Executive Director Gil Graff.

It also gives schools credibility that comes from being reviewed by an impartial independent group of experts, Jacoby said, and assures outsiders that they can trust the school’s claims about its focus and philosophy.

For Heschel West principal Jan Saltsman, accreditation translates into necessary accountability.

“We are accountable to our students, to our parents, to the larger community,” Saltsman said. “With CAIS, WASC and BJE, we are held accountable. If you don’t have the accreditation, who are you accountable to?”

In addition to legitimacy and credibility, it also brings financial benefits. Only BJE-accredited schools are eligible for a share of $1.6 million in Jewish Federation funding, which the BJE disburses to support Jewish schools, or the $350,000 of Federation dollars, which the Bureau earmarks for day school scholarships. Also, the BJE itself provides about $100,000 in grants for schools to pursue projects identified through the accreditation process.

The three-part process begins with a school performing a detailed self-study and presenting the results in a written report. A visiting team of experienced educators then evaluates the school during a three-and-a-half-day site visit. (BJE visitors, who volunteer their time, are matched to the institution by denomination.) The BJE accrediting commission then reviews the visiting team’s report to determine a term of accreditation. The maximum term is six years, and institutions are typically revisited at the halfway point. For subsequent accreditation, they must demonstrate progress made on previous recommendations.

The BJE manual has served as a model for other bureaus of Jewish education, including those in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It was recognized by the Jewish Educational Service of North America (JESNA), an umbrella organization that shares best practices in Jewish education. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, which accredits early childhood programs, cites the BJE’s manual in its own accreditation instructions.

Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu in Culver City received first-time joint accreditation from BJE and WASC in April of last year.

Clarisse Schlesinger, the school’s assistant principal of general studies, described how the whole school learned about ESLRs (pronounced es-lurs), the acronym for Expected Schoolwide Learning Results. Every school must articulate its ESLRs — the core concepts its students are expected to master — as part of the accreditation process. Each grade learned about Ohr Eliyahu’s ESLRs in age-appropriate language. So first-graders, for example, could affirm “We love to do mitzvot” and “We can write in Hebrew and English.”

“Examining ourselves in this way was terrific,” she said. “We learned a lot … and identified areas we thought we could improve.”

As a result of the analysis, the school made several changes, including adopting a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade math curriculum and giving Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Ohr Eliyahu’s dean and executive director, more time to interact with parents, teachers and students. They also received a BJE grant to help enhance their library.

Now, Schlesinger will switch from reviewee to reviewer. She will represent WASC on a review committee evaluating an Armenian school in Orange County later this year.

Goldberg, who is also Ohr Eliyahu’s principal, said he was grateful to the BJE for encouraging the school to undergo accreditation.

“The idea of evaluation and self-reflection is critical, but unless you’re encouraged, you don’t always make time for it,” he said. “We grew a lot from the process.”